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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezekiel 22

 

 

Verses 1-31

FINAL ORACLES AGAINST JERUSALEM

Ezekiel 22:1-31; Ezekiel 24:1-27

THE close of the first period of Ezekiel’s work was marked by two dramatic incidents, which made the day memorable both in the private life of the prophet and in the history of the nation. In the first place it coincided exactly with the commencement of the siege of Jerusalem. The prophet’s mysterious knowledge of what was happening at a distance was duly recorded, in order that its subsequent confirmation through the ordinary channels of intelligence might prove the divine origin of his message. [Ezekiel 24:1-2] That Ezekiel actually did this we have no reason to doubt. Then the sudden death of his wife on the evening of the same day, and his unusual behaviour under the bereavement, caused a sensation among the exiles which the prophet was instructed to utilise as a means of driving home the appeal just made to them. These transactions must have had a profound effect on Ezekiel’s fellow-captives. They made his personality the centre of absorbing interest to the Jews in Babylon; and the two years of silence on his part which ensued were to them years of anxious foreboding about the result of the siege.

At this juncture the prophet’s thoughts naturally are occupied with the subject which hitherto formed the principal burden of his prophecy. The first part of his career accordingly closes, as it had begun, with a symbol of the fall of Jerusalem. Before this, however, he had drawn out the solemn indictment against Jerusalem which is given in chapter 22, although the finishing touches were probably added after the destruction of the city. The substance of that chapter is so closely related to the symbolic representation in the first part of chapter 24 that it will be convenient to consider it here as an introduction to the concluding oracles addressed more directly to the exiles of Tel-abib.

I.

The purpose of this arraignment-the most stately of Ezekiel’s orations-is to exhibit Jerusalem in her true character as a city whose social condition is incurably corrupt. It begins with an enumeration of the prevalent sins of the capital (Ezekiel 22:2-16); it ends with a denunciation of the various classes into which society was divided (Ezekiel 22:23-31); while the short intervening passage is a figurative description of the judgment which is now inevitable (Ezekiel 22:17-22).

1. The first part of the chapter, then, is a catalogue of the "abominations" which called down the vengeance of heaven upon the city of Jerusalem. The offences enumerated are nearly the same as those mentioned in the definitions of personal righteousness and wickedness given in chapter 18. It is not necessary to repeat what was there said about the characteristics of the moral ideal which had been formed in the mind of Ezekiel. Although he is dealing now with a society, his point of view is quite different from that represented by purely allegorical passages like chapters 16 and 23. The city is not idealised and treated as a moral individual, whose relations with Jehovah have to he set forth in symbolic and figurative language. It is conceived as an aggregate of individuals bound together in social relations; and the sins charged against it are the actual transgressions of the men who are members of the community. Hence the standard of public morality is precisely the same as that which is elsewhere applied to the individual in his personal relation to God; and the sins enumerated are attributed to the city merely because they are tolerated and encouraged in individuals by laxity of public opinion and the force of evil example. Jerusalem is a community in which these different crimes are perpetrated: "Father and mother are despised in thee; the stranger is oppressed in the midst of thee; orphan and widow are wronged in thee; slanderous men seeking blood have been in thee; flesh with the blood is eaten in thee; lewdness is committed in the midst of thee; the father’s shame is uncovered in thee; she that was unclean in her separation hath been humbled in thee." So the grave and measured indictment runs on. It is because of these things that Jerusalem as a whole is "guilty" and "unclean" and has brought near her day of retribution (Ezekiel 22:4). Such a conception of corporate guilt undoubtedly appeals more directly to our ordinary conscience of public morality than the more poetic representations where Jerusalem is compared to a faithless and treacherous woman. We have no difficulty in judging of any modern city in the very same way as Ezekiel here judges Jerusalem; and in this respect it is interesting to notice the social evils which he regards as marking out that city as ripe for destruction.

There are three features of the state of things in Jerusalem in which the prophet recognises the symptoms of an incurable social condition. The first is the loss of a true conception of God. In ancient Israel this defect necessarily assumed: the form of idolatry. Hence the multiplication. of idols appropriately finds a place among the marks of the "uncleanness" which made Jerusalem hateful in the eyes of Jehovah (Ezekiel 22:3). But the root of idolatry in Israel was the incapacity or the unwillingness of the people to live up to the lofty conception of the Divine nature which was taught by the prophets. Throughout the ancient world religion was felt to be the indispensable bond of society, and the gods that were worshipped reflected more or less fully the ideals that swayed the life of the community. To Israel the religion of Jehovah represented the highest social ideal that was then known on earth. It meant righteousness, and purity, and brotherhood, and compassion for the poor and distressed. When these virtues decayed she forgot Jehovah (Ezekiel 22:12)-forgot His character even if she remembered His name-and the service of false gods was the natural and obvious expression of the fact. There is therefore a profound truth in Ezekiel’s mind when he numbers the idols of Jerusalem amongst the indications of a degenerate society. They were the evidence that she had lost the sense of God as a holy and righteous spiritual presence in her midst, and that loss was at once the source and symptom of widespread moral declension. It is one of the chief lessons of the Old Testament that a religion which was neither the product of national genius. nor the embodiment of national aspiration, but was based on supernatural revelation, proved itself in the history of Israel to be the only possible safeguard against the tendencies which made for social disintegration.

A second mark of depravity which Ezekiel discovers in the capital is the perversion of certain moral instincts which are just as essential to the preservation of society as a true conception of God. For if society rests at one end on religion, it rests at the other on instinct. The closest and most fundamental of human relations depend on innate perceptions which may be easily destroyed, but which when destroyed can scarcely be recovered. The sanctities of marriage and the family will hardly bear the coarse scrutiny of utilitarian ethics; yet they are the foundation on which the whole social fabric is built. And there is no part of Ezekiel’s indictment of Jerusalem which conveys to our minds a more vivid sense of utter corruption than where he speaks of the loss of filial piety and; revolting forms of sexual impurity as prevalent sins in the city. Here at least he carries the conviction of every moralist with him. He instances no offence of this kind which would not be branded as unnatural by any system of ethics as heartily as it is by the Old Testament. It is possible, on the other hand, that he ranks on the same level with these sins ceremonial impurities appealing to feelings of a different order, to which no permanent moral value can be attached. When, for example, he instances eating with the blood as an "abomination," he appeals to a law which is no longer binding on us. But even that regulation was not so worthless, from a moral point of view at that time as we are apt to suppose. The abhorrence of eating blood was connected with certain sacrificial ideas which attributed a mystic significance to the blood as the seat of animal life. So long as these ideas existed no man could commit this offence without injuring his moral nature and loosening the Divine sanctions of morality as a whole. It is a false illuminism which seeks to disparage the moral insight of the prophet on the ground that he did not teach an abstract system of ethics in which ceremonial precepts were sharply distinguished from duties which we consider moral.

The third feature of Jerusalem’s guilty condition is lawless violation of human rights. Neither life nor property was secure. Judicial murders were frequent in the city, and minor forms of oppression, such as usury, spoliation of the unprotected, and robbery, were of daily occurrence. The administration of justice was corrupted by systematic bribery and perjury, and the lives of innocent men were ruthlessly sacrificed under the forms of law. This after all is the aspect of things which bulks most largely in the prophet’s indictment. Jerusalem is addressed as a "city shedding blood in her midst," and throughout the accusation the charge of bloodshed is that which constantly recurs. Misgovernment and party strife, and perhaps religious persecution, had converted the city into a vast human shambles, and the blood of the innocent slain cried aloud to heaven for vengeance. "Of what avail," asks the prophet, "are the stores of wealth piled up in the hands of a few against this damning witness of blood? Jehovah smites His hand [in derision] against her gains that she has made, and against her blood which is in her midst. How can her heart stand or her hands be strong in the days when He deals with her?" (Ezekiel 22:13-14). Drained of her best blood, given over to internecine strife, and stricken with the cowardice of conscious guilt, Jerusalem, already disgraced among the nations, must fall an easy victim to the Chaldaean invaders, who are the agents of Jehovah’s judgments.

2. But the most serious aspect of the situation is that which is dealt with in the peroration of the chapter (Ezekiel 22:23-31). Outbursts of vice and lawlessness such as has been described may occur in any society, but they are not necessarily fatal to a community so long as it possesses a conscience which can be roused to effective protest against them. Now the worst thing about Jerusalem was that she lacked this indispensable condition of recovery. No voice was raised on the side of righteousness, no man dared to stem the tide of wickedness that swept through her streets. Not merely that she harboured within her walls men guilty of incest and robbery and murder, but that her leading classes were demoralised, that public spirit had decayed among her citizens, marked her as incapable of reformation. She was "a land not watered," "and not rained upon in a day of indignation" (Ezekiel 22:24); the springs of her civic virtue were dried up, and a blight spread through all sections of her population. Ezekiel’s impeachment of different classes of society brings out this fact with great force. First of all the ancient institutions of social order, government, priesthood, and prophecy were in the hands of men who had lost the spirit of their office and abused their position for the advancement of private interests. Her princes have been, instead of humane rulers and examples of noble living, cruel and rapacious tyrants, enriching themselves at the cost of their subjects (Ezekiel 22:25). The priests, whose function was to maintain the outward ordinances of religion and foster the spirit of reverence, have done their utmost, by falsification of the Torah, to bring religion into contempt and obliterate the distinction between the holy and the profane (Ezekiel 22:26). The nobles had been a pack of ravening wolves, imitating the rapacity of the court, and hunting down prey which the royal lion would have disdained to touch (Ezekiel 22:27). As for the professional prophets-those degenerate representatives of the old champions of truth and mercy-we have already seen what they were worth (chapter 13). They who should have been foremost to denounce civil wrong are fit for nothing but to stand by and bolster up with lying oracles in the name of Jehovah a constitution which sheltered crimes like these (Ezekiel 22:28).

From the ruling classes the prophet’s glance turns for a moment to the "people of the land," the dim common population, where virtue might have been expected to find its last retreat. It is characteristic of the age of Ezekiel that the prophets begin to deal more particularly with the sins of the masses as distinct from the classes. This was due partly perhaps to a real increase of ungodliness in the body of the people, but partly also to a deeper sense of the importance of the individual apart from his position in the state. These prophets seem to feel that there had been anywhere among rich or poor an honest response to the will of Jehovah it would have been a token that God had not altogether rejected Israel. Jeremiah puts this view very strongly when in the fifth chapter he says that if one man could be found in Jerusalem who did justice and sought truth the Lord would pardon her; and his vain search for that one man begins among the poor. It is this same motive that leads Ezekiel to include the humble citizen in his survey of the moral condition of Jerusalem. It is little wonder that under such leaders they had cast off the restraints of humanity, and oppressed those who were still more defenceless than themselves. But it showed nevertheless that real religion had no longer a foothold in the city. It proved that the greed of gain had eaten into the very heart of the people and destroyed the ties of kindred and mutual sympathy, through which alone the will of Jehovah could be realised. No matter although they were obscure householders, without political power or responsibility; if they had been good men in their private relations, Jerusalem would have been a better place to live in. Ezekiel indeed does not go so far as to say that a single good life would have saved the city. He expects of a good man that he be a man in the full sense-a man who speaks boldly on behalf of righteousness and resists the prevalent evils with all his strength: "I sought among them a man to build up a fence, and to stand in the breach before Me on behalf of the land, that it might not be destroyed; and I found none. So I poured out My indignation upon them; with the fire of My wrath I consumed them: I have returned their way upon their head, saith the Lord Jehovah" (Ezekiel 22:30-31).

3. But we should misunderstand Ezekiel’s position if we supposed that his prediction of the speedy destruction of Jerusalem was merely an inference from his clear insight into the necessary conditions of social welfare which were being violated by her rulers and her citizens. That is one part of his message, but it could not stand alone. The purpose of the indictment we have considered is simply to explain the moral reasonableness of Jehovah’s. action in the great act of judgment which the prophet knows to be approaching. It is no doubt a general law of history that moribund communities are not allowed to die a natural death. Their usual fate is to perish in the struggle for existence before some other and sounder nation. But no human sagacity can foresee how that law will be verified in any particular case. It may seem clear to us now that Israel must have fallen sooner or later before the advance of the great Eastern empires, but an ordinary observer could not have foretold with the confidence and precision which mark the predictions of Ezekiel in what manner and within what time the end would come. Of that aspect of the prophet’s mind no explanation can be given save that God revealed His secret to His servants the prophets.

Now this element of the prophecy seems to be brought out by the image of Jerusalem’s fate which occupies the middle verses of the chapter (Ezekiel 22:17-22). The city is compared to the crucible in which all the refuse of Israel’s national life is to undergo its final trial by fire. The prophet sees in imagination the terror-stricken provincial population swept into the capital before the approach of the Chaldeans: and he says, "Thus doth Jehovah cast His ore into the furnace-the silver, the brass, the iron, the lead, and the tin; and He will kindle the fire with His anger, and blow upon it till He have consumed the impurities of the land." The image of the smelting-pot had been used by Isaiah as an emblem of purifying judgment, the object of which was the removal of injustice and the restoration of the state to its former splendour: "I will again bring My hand upon thee, smelting out thy dross with lye and taking away all thine alloy; and I will make thy judges to be again as aforetime, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: thereafter thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city" (Isaiah 1:25-26). Ezekiel, however, can hardly have contemplated such a happy result of the operation. The whole house of Israel has become dross, from which no precious metal can be extracted; and the object of the smelting is only the demonstration of the utter worthlessness of the people for the ends of God’s kingdom. The more refractory the material to be dealt with the fiercer must be the fire that tests it; and the severity of the exterminating judgment is the only thing symbolised by the metaphor as used by Ezekiel. In this he follows Jeremiah, who applies the figure in precisely the same sense: "The bellows snort, the lead is consumed of the fire; in vain he smelts and smelts: but the wicked are not taken away. Refuse silver shall men call them, for the Lord hath rejected them." [Jeremiah 6:29-30] In this way the section supplements the teaching of the rest of the chapter. Jerusalem is full of dross-that has been proved by the enumeration of her crimes and the estimate of her social condition. But the fire which consumes the dross represents a special providential intervention bringing the history of the state to a summary and decisive conclusion. And the Refiner who superintends the process is Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, whose righteous will is executed by the march of conquering hosts, and revealed to men in His dealings with the people whom He had known of all the families of the earth.

II.

The chapter we have just studied was evidently not composed with a view to immediate publication. It records the view of Jerusalem’s guilt and punishment which was borne in upon the mind of the prophet in the solitude of his chamber, but it was not destined to see the light until the whole of his teaching could be submitted in its final form to a wider and more receptive audience. It is equally obvious that the scenes described in chapter 24 were really enacted in the full view of the exiled community. We have reached the crisis of Ezekiel’s ministry. For the last time until his warnings of doom shall be fulfilled he emerges from his partial seclusion, and in symbolism whose vivid force could not have failed to impress the most listless hearer he announces once more the destruction of the Hebrew nation. The burden of his message is that that day-the tenth day of the tenth month of the ninth year-marked the beginning of the end. "On that very day"-a day to be commemorated for seventy long years by a national fast (Zechariah 8:19; Zechariah 7:5)-Nebuchadnezzar was drawing his lines around Jerusalem. The bare announcement to men who knew what a Chaldaean siege meant must have sent a thrill of consternation through their minds. If this vision of what was happening in a distant land should prove true, they must have felt that all hope of deliverance was now cut off. Sceptical as they may have been of the moral principles that lay behind Ezekiel’s prediction, they could not deny that the issue he foresaw was only the natural sequel to the fact he so confidently announced.

The image here used of the fate of Jerusalem would recall to the minds of the exiles the ill-omened saying which expressed the reckless spirit prevalent in the city: "This city is the pot, and we are the flesh." [Ezekiel 11:3] It was well understood in Babylon that these men were playing a desperate game, and did not shrink from the horrors of a siege. "Set on the pot," then, cries the prophet to his listeners, "set it on, and pour in water also, and gather the pieces into it, every good joint, leg, and shoulder; fill it with the choicest bones. Take them from the best of the flock, and then pile up the wood under it; let its pieces be boiled and its bones cooked within it" (Ezekiel 24:3-5). This part of the parable required no explanation; it simply represents the terrible miseries endured by the population of Jerusalem during the siege now commencing. But then by a sudden transition the speaker turns the thoughts of his hearers to another aspect of the judgment (Ezekiel 24:6-8). The city itself is like a rusty caldron, unfit for any useful purpose until by some means it has been cleansed from its impurity. It is as if the crimes that had been perpetrated in Jerusalem had stained her very stones with blood. She had not even taken steps to conceal the traces of her wickedness; they lie like blood on the bare rock, an open witness to her guilt. Often Jehovah had sought to purify her by more measured chastisements, but it has now been proved that "her much rust will not go from her except by fire" (Ezekiel 24:12). Hence the end of the siege will be twofold. First of all the contents of the caldron will be indiscriminately thrown out-a figure for the dispersion and captivity of the inhabitants; and then the pot must be set empty on the glowing coals till its rust is thoroughly burned out-a symbol of the burning of the city and its subsequent desolation (Ezekiel 24:11). The idea that the material world may contract defilement through the sins of those who live in it is one that is hard for us to realise, but it is in keeping with the view of sin presented by Ezekiel, and indeed by the Old Testament generally. There are certain natural emblems of sin, such as uncleanness or disease or uncovered blood, etc., which had to be largely used in order to educate men’s moral perceptions. Partly these rest on the analogy between physical defect and moral evil; but partly, as here, they result from a strong sense of association between human deeds and their effects or circumstances. Jerusalem is unclean as a place where wicked deeds have been done, and even the destruction of the sinners cannot, in the mind of Ezekiel, clear her from the unhallowed associations of her history. She must lie empty and dreary for a generation, swept by the winds of heaven, before devout Israelites can again twine their affections round the hope of her glorious future.

Even while delivering this message of doom to the people the prophet’s heart was burdened by the presemiment of a great personal sorrow. He had received an intimation that his wife was to be taken from him by a sudden stroke, and along with the intimation a command to refrain from all the usual signs of mourning. "So I spake to the people" (as recorded in Ezekiel 24:1-14) "in the morning, and my wife died in the evening" (Ezekiel 24:18). Just one touch of tenderness escapes him in relating this mysterious occurrence. She was the "delight of his eyes": that phrase alone reveals that there was a fountain of tears sealed up within the breast of this stern preacher. How the course of his life may have been influenced by a bereavement so strangely coincident with a change in his whole attitude to his people, we cannot even surmise. Nor is it possible to say how far he merely used the incident to convey a lesson to the exiles, or how far his private grief was really swallowed up in concern for the calamity of his country. All we are told is that "in the morning he did as he was commanded." He neither uttered loud lamentations, nor disarranged his raiment, nor covered his head, nor ate the "bread of men," nor adopted any of the customary signs of mourning for the dead. When the astonished neighbours inquire the meaning of his strange demeanour, he assures them that his conduct now is a sign of what theirs will be when his words have come true. When the tidings reach them that Jerusalem has actually fallen, when they realise how many interests dear to them have perished-the desolation of the sanctuary, the loss of their own sons and daughters-they will experience a sense of calamity which will instinctively discard all the conventional and even the natural expressions of grief. They shall neither mourn nor weep, but sit in dumb bewilderment, haunted by a dull consciousness of guilt which yet is far removed from genuine contrition of heart. They shall pine away in their iniquities. For while their sorrow will be too deep for words, it will not yet be the godly sorrow that worketh repentance. It will be the sullen despair and apathy of men disenchanted of the illusions on which their national life was based, of men left without hope and without God in the world.

Here the curtain falls on the first act of Ezekiel’s ministry. He appears to have retired for the space of two years into complete privacy, ceasing entirely his public appeals to the people, and waiting for the time of his vindication as a prophet. The sense of restraint under which he has hitherto exercised the function of a public teacher cannot be removed until the tidings have reached Babylon that the city has fallen. Meanwhile, with the delivery of this message, his contest with the unbelief of his fellow captives comes to an end. But when that day arrives "his mouth shall be open, and he shall be no more dumb." A new career will open out before him, in which he can devote all his powers of mind and heart to the inspiring work of reviving faith in the promises of God, and so building up a new Israel out of the ruins of the old.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 22:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezekiel-22.html.

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